Mexican border exclusions anger private flyers

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General aviation groups are concerned about a year-long temporary flight restriction (TFR) that came into effect along the US border with Mexico on 24 January to prevent collisions with unmanned air vehicles on surveillance missions.

The 550km (300nm)-long, 30km-wide corridor along the US-Mexico border in Arizona and New Mexico is associated with use of the General Atomics Predator B unmanned aircraft by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The agency took delivery of its first Predator in September and has exercised an option for a second to be delivered by mid-year.

Established by the Federal Aviation Administration, the TFR is limited to altitudes between 12,000ft and 14,000ft (3,660-4,270m) and is in effect between 17:00 and 07:00. Aircraft within the restricted area are required to operate under instrument flight rules (IFR), maintaining two-way communication with air traffic control and transmitting a discrete transponder code.

The CBP’s Predator is based at Muni-Libby airfield on Ft Huachuca in Arizona. General Atomics says the UAV is allowed to fly within Libby’s restricted airspace without filing an IFR flight plan. “Outside that airspace, and within the confines of where our CoA [certificate of authorisation] allows us to fly along the border, the FAA requires that we file an IFR flight plan 2h in advance,” the company says.

GA groups are concerned at the duration and size of the TFR, which is scheduled to be in effect until 31 December, but is expected to be renewed next year. Use of a “temporary” large-scale flight restriction for year-long UAV operations is “not appropriate”, says the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “It’s unacceptable to cordon off large areas of civilian airspace just because a UAV can’t detect and avoid other aircraft,” says Andy Cebula, executive vice-president of government affairs.

The FAA does not have to solicit public input on a TFR, whereas a notice of proposed rulemaking with comment period is usually required to establish a long-term restricted or prohibited area.

GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINGTON DC